Africa: 'We Need Development That is Good for People AND Good for the Planet'

Flowering fynbos, Tylecodon grandiflorus (a crassula), looking North East over False Bay from the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park (file photo).
27 May 2019

Cape Town — allAfrica's Melissa Britz spoke with an expert on the state of our planet's biodiversity and what we can do about it. Belinda Reyers, is a Professor of Sustainability Science at Stellenbosch University, and a Coordinating Lead Author of the Global Assessment and Lead Author of the African Assessment for The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Reyers: It might be useful to clarify some of the terms used in the report and summary for policy makers. IPBES uses the term "nature" as a wide and broadly encompassing way to refer to the diversity of species (animal, plants, microorganisms like bacteria), ecosystems (wetlands, grasslands) and their abiotic or physical environments (this would include soil, air, climate etc).

This diversity of species and ecosystems are also often referred to broadly as biodiversity. I know that readers have often narrower understandings of "nature" as only referring to wilderness and pristine nature, but IPBES also include urban and agricultural ecosystems and species in the definition of nature.

IPBES has a glossary which could be useful too.

allAfrica: Can you share with us any challenges or highlights you experienced while working on this report?

A major challenge for me was making sure we communicate the seriousness of this report and its findings, while at the same time remaining hopeful and practical about our ability to change course towards a better future for people and biodiversity. Our job as scientists working on IPBES was to summarise what we know about the state of biodiversity, what that means for humanity AND what we can do about it.

The findings are indeed serious because we are losing species and ecosystems faster than at any time in human history with real implications for us and our survival. Industrial agriculture, infrastructure development, mining, pollution, climate change and many other human activities are changing the face of the world and African landscapes, ecosystems and species with consequences for our health, our wellbeing and our society. But at the same time the report showed that it doesn't have to be this way.

A highlight for me was how IPBES was able to gather evidence from around the world to show that there are other approaches to grow food, build cities, sustainably use species and develop our society that have lighter impacts on the environment and share the benefits more widely. These efforts already exist in many parts of Africa but they are currently small, fragmented and out of the mainstream. However, we have the knowledge and technology needed to support these efforts and make them more common. Of course it will be challenging to make such fundamental changes to our food, energy, water and economic systems, but the situation is far from hopeless.

Please outline for us in simple terms why biodiversity is so crucial to survival on our planet.

Biodiversity - which broadly encompasses the wide diversity of species of animals, plants and microorganisms and the ecosystems (like savannas or wetlands) in which they live - underpins almost every aspect of our lives. Our food, water, medicines, clothing, health, holidays, social relations and wellbeing can all be traced to a species or ecosystem providing us with these benefits.

Some of these benefits may be replaceable, but many are not. Some come from far away and can thus be invisible to us in our daily lives. But no matter how invisible they are, losing species or part of an ecosystem will have direct impacts on people. In fact IPBES shows that these impacts are already having negative effects on communities more directly reliant on species and ecosystems like rural farming or coastal communities dependent on species and ecosystems for food, shelter, energy, and clean air and water.

We show that the impacts of these declines in species and ecosystems are inequitably distributed with those who can afford it the least, already bearing the highest cost. Many of us who are less directly reliant on species or ecosystems may think we are less affected, but IPBES highlights that we are all in fact being impacted by these declines in significant ways - through our mental wellbeing, our health, our culture and our identity eroding as we lose nature and important connections with nature. We are all poorer for this loss.

Are there any insights that you can share with us that affect Africa particularly?

The assessment was a global assessment and it doesn't single out specific regions, but last year the regional assessment for Africa was released and so if you take these two reports then I think you can say the following about Africa.

In many ways Africa can be said to feel a disproportionate burden of biodiversity loss. First, because Africa is host to so much of the world's remaining biodiversity and shares a disproportionate cost of looking after it for the continent, but importantly also for the world, as many of the benefits of African biodiversity flow beyond the continent's borders (e.g. agricultural produce, fish, timber, climate regulation and tourism). Second, Africa also bears the disproportionate costs of declines in global biodiversity which are having a substantial impact on Africa and its development prospects.

In IPBES we show how losses in biodiversity globally will prevent the achievement of nutrition and food security, poverty alleviation, water security, equality and other important development targets contained in the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 which are critical to the continent. This disproportionate burden for Africa is especially important to consider in the light of growing inequalities around the world, with Africa and many of its citizens already at risk of being left behind by current development efforts and opportunities. Current economic, political or environmental choices that affect biodiversity in Africa, and in the rest of the world, will have significant implications for African futures.

On the other hand, Africa's biodiversity richness, diverse and relatively healthy ecosystems, as well as deep connections between nature and people offer important avenues to improvements in health, equality and prosperity for the continent. IPBES for example found that we can achieve global development goals in the future through concerted efforts that address inequality, sustainability and climate change together with shifts in how we value nature in business, policy and society. This value isn't the monetary or dollar value of nature - but rather how we account for the benefits from nature, and the costs of its deterioration, in our day to day activities. At present those are treated as invisible, ignored and deferred to others and to future generations.

If there's only one thing you'd want the average person to know, what would that be?

I hope that this report makes us all stop and think about the choices we make and the future we want - as individuals, as communities, as a continent and as a globally-connected humanity. Especially for those of us not feeling these immediate impacts, it's time to think about who are bearing the costs of our impacts on species and ecosystems. Impacts that may even be happening in countries and places far distant from where we live.

Are there any projects you are involved that looks at slowing or reversing the loss of biodiversity that you can share with us?

Much of my work in South Africa is aimed at raising awareness, understanding and management of the role of biodiversity in areas such as disaster management, nutrition security, urban development and poverty alleviation.  We are often sold a false choice between people or biodiversity, or economic development now and biodiversity conservation later, but this is simply not true. We need development that is good for people AND good for the planet - the two are inextricably linked and any impact on one has an impact on the other. By linking biodiversity to water security, gender equality, healthy cities, social justice or climate change adaptation our work bring partners together from the private and public sector to work together investing in, conserving and restoring species and ecosystems for diverse and equitable benefits to people now and in the future.

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